For the first time in over 40 years, NASA has found atomic oxygen high up in the mesosphere of the planet Mars. The Viking and Mariner missions of the 1970s made the last measurements of atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere.
“Atomic oxygen affects how other gases escape Mars and therefore has a significant impact on the planet’s atmosphere,” NASA said in a statement.
The oxygen was discovered by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a modified Boeing 747SP jetliner which flies between 37,000 and 45,000 feet above Earth.
The space agency confirmed that they only detected about half of the oxygen they had expected to discover, which may be due to variations in the Martian atmosphere. NASA researchers will now go on to study these variations to help better understand the atmosphere of the Red Planet.
Pamela Marcum, a scientist with the SOFIA project, stated that, “Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure. To observe the far infrared wavelengths needed to detect atomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer. SOFIA provides both capabilities.”
SOFIA seems to be the hope that the scientists studying Mars have been looking for as it is able to fly well above the infrared-blocking moisture in Earth’s atmosphere so that clear readings and images can be made.
The advanced detectors on one of the observatory’s instruments, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), enabled astronomers to distinguish the oxygen in the Martian atmosphere from oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere.
The observatory — a collaborative effort between the German Space Agency and NASA — is about the size of a passenger aircraft and it carries a telescope that is 100 inches in diameter. Because of the clarity provided by SOFIA, scientists are now able to make their calculations in a highly reliable manner.
While the oxygen was not at expected levels, the project scientists will continue to monitor the rest of the Marian atmosphere in an effort to be certain that other variables have not come into play.
Image Credits: 1) Mars image: NASA/MAVEN, 2) NASA Photo / Carla Thomas, 3) NASA Photo / Tom Tschida